Letter reveals another wartime "Christmas truce."

  • Posted by a hidden member.
    Log in to view his profile

    Dec 19, 2010 1:27 PM GMT
    Vimy Ridge letter shows war did not crush human spirit

    By Randy Boswell, Postmedia News December 16, 2010 Comments


    Canadian soldier, Private Ronald MacKinnon, whose 1916 letter from Vimy Ridge is being hailed as a "fantastic find" documenting a previously unknown "Christmas Truce" between German and Allied soldiers during the First World War.
    Photograph by: Oxford University Press, Photo Handout

    A Canadian soldier's letter from Vimy Ridge is being hailed by a European scholar as a "fantastic find" that provides evidence of a previously unknown "Christmas Truce" — the impromptu, Dec. 25 laying down of arms by German and Allied soldiers during the First World War.

    University of Aberdeen historian Thomas Weber, whose own great-grandfather fought with the German army during the 1914-18 conflict, said the letter home from a Toronto soldier details an exchange of gifts between enemy soldiers just months before the horrific battle remembered as Canada's coming of age.

    The letter is all the more poignant because the young Ontario soldier who wrote it — 23-year-old Pte. Ronald MacKinnon — was killed in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, a bloody but successful Canadian charge up a strategic height of land in the French countryside.

    A few months earlier, MacKinnon had written to his sister in Toronto about a remarkable event on Dec. 25, 1916, when German and Canadian soldiers reached across the battle lines to share Christmas greetings and trade presents.

    "Here we are again as the song says," MacKinnon wrote. "I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. . . . We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars."

    The passage ends with MacKinnon noting that, "Xmas was 'tray bon,' which means very good."

    The best known Christmas truce from the First World War took place in 1914, when German and Allied soldiers are said to have sung Christmas carols together and otherwise fraternized in a brief moment of peace amid the killing fields of the Western Front.

    But historians have long debated the precise details of that event, and Weber told Postmedia News that most scholars believe such episodes did not recur as the gruesome war dragged on and feelings of hatred and revenge came to fill the minds of men on both sides.

    "But these kinds of sentiments were being expressed throughout the war," said Weber, whose recently published book, Hitler's First War, details the First World War experiences of the central figure of the Second World War.

    Notably, says Weber, Adolf Hitler's own regiment in the First World War was among those known to have participated in momentary acts of kinship with enemy soldiers. He takes aim in his book at the widely held notion that Hitler was profoundly shaped by a deep hatred and bitterness for the enemy that was common among German soldiers from the First World War.

    While Hitler is known to have been personally hostile to momentary peacemaking amid the war, there was a definite "gulf" between his views and those of many Germans on the front lines.

    MacKinnon's letter and similar evidence of fraternizing with foes "really puts to rest the long dominant view that the majority of combatants during the Great War were driven by a brutalizing and ever faster spinning cycle of violence," Weber argues in a summary of his research.

    "I'm not saying that brutalization did not occur at all," he added, "but more commonly what happened was that soldiers in the heat of battle fought ferociously but, after the battle and after the adrenalin had gone, remorse tended to set in, and there are many incidents recorded where soldiers tried to help injured soldiers from the other side."

    It was "because of this kind of sentiment that continued Christmas truces were possible," Weber states.

    The historian said he was alerted to the MacKinnon letter following a lecture he gave this fall in Toronto. An audience member approached him afterwards and said his family had direct evidence of the sometimes friendly relations exhibited between enemies during the First World War.

    "The letter was a fantastic find and clearly demonstrates that there was an attempt to downplay these small-scale Christmas truces when they happened," says Weber, noting that official military records make little or no mention of such events — largely because they could be interpreted by army commanders as a failure to maintain discipline and a fighting frame of mind among front-line soldiers.

    "Officers had to report to higher chain of command so had an interest in downplaying events in the official version in their war diaries."

    He said in an interview that British and Canadian soldiers appear to be most commonly involved in Christmas truces, which were occurring despite the "great amount of risk for the first soldier coming out" of the trenches to initiate contact with the enemy.

    "You never quite know how widespread the phenomenon will be," he said. "Will the enemy start singing or get out their guns?"

    He noted that the "existing popular version" of why Christmas truces occurred suggests "what was ultimately important was whether Allied troops were facing 'good Germans' like Bavarians or 'bad' Germans like Prussians and Saxons. But actually, it seems it doesn't matter whether the Germans were northern, southern, Catholic or Protestant — the influential factor was whether they were facing British — including Canadian and Australian units — rather than French troops."

    Other historians have cautioned against "sentimentalizing" life on First World War battle fronts. The award-winning Canadian chronicler of the war, Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook, has documented the illegal executions of enemy prisoners and other acts of barbarism during the conflict, and once wrote that such "cruel" episodes typically garner less attention that idealized stories of spontaneous truces featuring "cigarette-swapping, football-kicking soldiers at Christmas."

    Weber says there's no doubt the brutalizing effects of the First World War led to the "dehumanizing" of enemy combatants in many cases, but that the Christmas truces highlight how a "kind of humanity did survive."

    Text of letter written on Dec. 30, 1916 to Jeanie Gregson in Toronto.

    Dearest Sister,

    Here we are again as the song says. I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. I had long rubber boots or waders. We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Xmas was "tray bon" which means very good.

    Do you ever write to Aunt Minnie in Cleveland? If you do, see if she can give you the address of any of our mother's relations in England. Aunt Nellie was saying that some of them lived in Grangemouth, which is not far from Fauldhouse. If you could get me their address I would be very pleased to see them when I am in Blighty again.

    I am at present in an army school 50 miles behind the line and am likely to be here for a month or so. My address will be the same, No. 3 Coy., PPCLI. I left the trenches on Xmas night. The trenches we are holding at present are very good and things are very quiet.

    I have had no Xmas mail yet but I hope to get it all soon. How is Neil getting on in the city? I'll write to him some of these days. Remember me to all my many friends at home.

    Your loving brother


    © Copyright (c) Postmedia News

    Friday, December 17, 2010
  • Posted by a hidden member.
    Log in to view his profile

    Dec 19, 2010 6:58 PM GMT
    I like this, very interesting.